HBO’s new two-part documentary, What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali, helps us relive the tapestry of words and actions that made Muhammad Ali the most hated and most loved American, depending on who you spoke to.
The show is directed by Antoine Fuqua of the Traning Day fame and is available on Showmax just a month after it premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
Fuqua tells Ali’s story almost entirely in his own words. This is an intimate portrait of a man who dared to be the greatest in a country still engaged in a civil war to win civil rights for all.
What’s My Name is executive-produced by basketball superstar LeBron James and received a great reception by critics and the public alike. Chicago Times critic, Richard Roeper, says:
“The greatness of What’s My Name is that if you’re young and you know very little of Muhammad Ali, this would be the perfect place to start learning about him — but if you remember Ali in his prime and you’re well-versed in his history, it’s still a must-see television event.”
The show covers Ali’s life and fights, relives the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ and the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ that broke television viewership records. However, front and centre throughout the show are Ali’s words.
This is no simple profile of a sportsman because Ali was no simple man. Ali was so very complex. He modelled his persona on professional wrestler Gorgeous George.
His brash, arrogant persona was designed to elicit love or hate. Whether fans were paying to watch him win or to watch him lose, the only important thing was that they were paying.
“I looked at him. I said, ‘Boy, he needs a good whooping.’ And I saw all those people coming to see Gorgeous George get beat. And they all paid to get in, and that’s the thing, they paid to get in. And I said, ‘This is a good idea.’ And right away, I started talking, ‘I am the greatest…’”
Of course, all of this was happening against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights movement. And the show includes Ali’s involvement with The Nation of Islam and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam war, a decision that ultimately cost him the best years of his career.
Ali was an enigma wrapped up in a mystery, his banter and good nature a counterpoint to his principled decisions and fiery temperament. We’ll never really know where Ali’s showmanship began and ended, but thankfully we don’t need to, to enjoy his craft in the ring.